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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Founders made clear I was political liability for Ashoka University: Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, also a Contributing Editor to The Indian Express, is considered one of the nation's foremost scholars on politics and political theory, Constitutional law, governance and political economy.

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: March 19, 2021 1:32:54 pm
Pratap Bhanu Mehta during an event in New Delhi. (Express photo: Anil Sharma)

Putting on record his reason for leaving Ashoka University, scholar and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in his resignation letter earlier this week that the founders made it “abundantly clear” his association with the institution was a “political liability.”

The crisis at Ashoka in the wake of Mehta’s resignation deepened Thursday. Calling the exit “ominously disturbing,” for academic freedom, Mehta’s colleague and former Chief Economic Advisor in the Modi government Arvind Subramanian sent in his resignation, too. Students protested on campus, the faculty issued a statement calling for Mehta’s return, and at least two more faculty members are said to be on the verge of quitting.

Sources told The Indian Express that Ashoka’s founders, including Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha, met Mehta recently and are said to have referred to the “current political environment,” while “suggesting” that his intellectual interventions were something they could no longer protect.

Ashoka University students protest on Thursday. (Express photo)

Mehta sent his resignation letter to Vice Chancellor Malabika Sarkar after this meeting citing the conversation with the founders. “My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university.”

He further wrote, “It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka. A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that ‘no living for truth is possible in a university.’ I hope that prophecy does not come true.”

Dhawan, who is the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Ashoka, and co-founder and Board member Sinha did not respond to calls or messages. Mehta declined to comment.

The Indian Express had first reported the news of Mehta’s exit from Ashok University on March 17.

Mehta, also a Contributing Editor to The Indian Express, is considered one of the nation’s foremost scholars on politics and political theory, Constitutional law, governance and political economy.

In his resignation letter submitted Thursday, Subramanian said that Mehta’s exit was linked to Ashoka’s inability to protect academic freedom and expression.


Subramanian had joined Ashoka in July last year as a professor in the department of economics. He is also the founding director of the new Ashoka Center for Economic Policy, devoted to researching policy issues related to India and global development.

“That even Ashoka—with its private status and backing by private capital—can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing,” the former CEA wrote to Sarkar.

“If the founders think that Mehta’s exit is the way they will placate the powers that be,” said an Ashoka professor, “they are mistaken. This dents the university’s integrity, pushes it down a slippery slope. Many of the top faculty came here because Mehta and, to be fair, the founders, too, had worked hard to build this space. This sends a chilling signal to everyone in higher education that if private founders, with significant financial resources, can’t stand up for Mehta in the face of political pressure, then who can?”

On Thursday, the campus witnessed students stage sit-in protests against the administration and the lack of transparency over Mehta’s exit. They demanded that Ashoka bring him back. They reiterated this demand during a virtual townhall meeting with Sarkar in which the V-C is learned to have told them that the trustees did not ask Mehta to leave, and that she was not privy to the conversations between the founders and Mehta.

Sources said a section of the founders is keen to get Mehta back and might reach out to him Friday.

Later in the day, the faculty released a statement that they were “deeply troubled” by Mehta’s departure, which possibly was “a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government.”

Mehta’s departure from Ashoka also evoked a reaction from noted scholar Sheldon Pollock at Columbia University. Pollock, who was a consultant for Sinha on the founding of Ashoka University, in 2013, told this newspaper:

“With the resignation of Prof. Mehta, the University’s foremost scholar and public intellectual, my respect for the institution has been seriously tested. I have great admiration for the Chancellor of the University, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, and for many of the trustees. I call upon them to provide a full, public, accounting of whatever policies or pressures brought about the circumstances that forced Prof. Mehta’s resignation, and to offer an unequivocal, public repudiation of them…If this is not done, and done soon, the stain on the University will be indelible, and the support of its most fervent admirers permanently lost.”

In 2019, Pollock donated to Ashoka his entire collection of books, and that of his late wife, Professor Allison Busch.

Here’s the complete text of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation letter:

Dear Prof Sarkar,

I write to tender my resignation from Ashoka University as University Professor. After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interests of the University I resign. I would request that the resignation take immediate effect. I am teaching one class, and would not like to leave the students stranded. But I think the university can find a solution. I can informally finish out the rest of the classes, if no other solution is found.

It has been a great privilege to get to know the students and several wonderful colleagues at Ashoka. I hope that the institution continues to thrive. I thank you and the Chancellor for your personal kindness over the years of my association with Ashoka.

It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka. A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that “no living for truth is possible in a university.” I hope that prophecy does not come true. But in light of the prevailing atmosphere, the Founders and the Administration will require renewed commitment to the values of Ashoka, and new courage to secure Ashoka’s freedom.

My only request is that the administration cooperate in making all the transition formalities as painless as possible. If any arrangements can take due consideration of my driver, Gajendra Sahu, I will be most grateful. He moved jobs with me and should not be penalised. If some interim help can be granted to him, while I make alternative arrangements to transfer him to an appropriate payroll, I shall be obliged.

I will forever remain a supporter of the values Ashoka is meant to embody. Please convey my deepest gratitude to all of Ashoka’s faculty, students and staff. They have all been unfailingly professional, supportive and generous.

I will have a hard copy with my signature sent to you as well. But this mail be treated as my resignation.

With warmest person

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